Congress Holds Hearing on Oversight of DC Metro

On April 13, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing entitled “Examining the Safety and Security of the D.C. Metro.” For two hours, members of the Government Operations and Transportation and Public Assets Subcommittees questioned Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) general manager Paul Wiedefeld and chairman of the board Jack Evans on the range of problems plaguing the capital’s transit system.

The representatives asked questions about Metro’s unprecedented system-wide shutdown on March 16, grilled the two leaders about the agency’s $2.5 billion unfunded pension liability, and accused the system’s management of inadequate action in addressing safety concerns such as the fatal smoke incident in January 2015.

Jack Evans outlined WMATA’s myriad budget issues, telling members “even if this system were operating like a clock, it will never survive under the financial structure that we have in place right now.” He asked the federal government for $300 million in annual contributions to Metro’s budget (which will be $100 million low for next year, he said). He blamed the unfunded pension liability as well as $18 billion in deferred maintenance, as WMATA’s chief financial problems.

Currently, WMATA gets half its budget of $1.8 billion dollars from fare collections, and the remaining half from the three jurisdictions that use the system – $300 million each from Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. The federal government does not contribute operating funds; however, they paid for two-thirds of the original capital cost of building the system back in 1976, amounting to $6.9 billion. Evans told the members, “you have to help us, otherwise we can’t survive.”

Representatives from states not in the Washington region, such as chairman of the Transportation and Public Assets subcommittee Representative John Mica (R-FL), opposed giving WMATA federal money, stating that he would not “bail out” the Metro by acquiescing to Evan’s demand. In response, local members such as Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), the ranking member of the subcommittee, accused Mica of penalizing their constituents by putting the financial burden on them. Connolly did agree with Mica’s assertion that the system needed change, saying that due to the extent of Metro’s problems, “examples are gonna have to be made…we have to hold people accountable at every layer of the organization” in order to restore public confidence.

Members called into question the regulatory ability of the Federal Transit Administration to oversee Metro, with the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Christopher Hart (who also served as a witness in the hearing), stating that he did not find the FTA’s authority to be adequate.

One of the biggest concerns in the past few weeks has been the looming possibility that Metro could close entire lines (such as the Blue Line) for months at a time for maintenance – Evans and Wiedefeld said this was a possibility at a meeting on March 30. While they have since downplayed this possibility, Evans seemed to hint that shorter shutdowns could still be in the cards, saying in the hearing: “we have years of neglected maintenance, and the idea of fixing this by working three hours at night and on the weekends is not working, we need a better plan.”

Addressing this possibility, government operations subcommittee chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) said later in the hearing that “closing the Blue Line for six months is not an option.”

Video recording of the hearing may be found here.

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